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Bringing Challah Into the Mainstream

In March of last year, Dolly Meckler, like so many others, decided to try her hand at sourdough. “And then I read a recipe,” she told me the other day, “and I saw this thing called starter, and I was, like, ‘Hell no.’ I was not about to grow something in a jar for two weeks.” Her thoughts turned to sweet, egg-rich, braided challah, which she hadn’t made since Jewish summer camp but remembered as being easier.

Clockwise from top left: North African-inspired matbucha, a mash of slow-cooked peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, and zucchini; Iraqi-style tershi, featuring squash, preserved lime, and Aleppo chili; Iraqi-style torshi, or mixed pickles; tahini-almond cookies; hummus topped with tatbila, a Middle Eastern hot sauce.

Indeed, for challah, she didn’t need a starter, but she did need yeast, which was scarce across the country; Meckler had recently moved to Los Angeles, from her native Manhattan, to look for jobs in social-media marketing. An odyssey, on foot, through the grocery stores of West Hollywood, which she documented on Instagram, finally led her to leavening. Not long after posting pictures of her first loaves, she began to field orders from followers impressed by her plaitwork. (She watched multiple YouTube videos.) Soon she was selling dozens a day. It wasn’t the work she’d imagined, but the enterprise befitted her skills: she already had a podcast called “Hello Dolly”; Challah Dolly, as she named her new business, became an extension of her personal brand.

Dolly Meckler, the founder of Challah Dolly, wants to incorporate challah into the mainstream.

Meckler returned to New York, where she found a bakery, Partybus Bakeshop, on the Lower East Side, to take on the day-to-day bread-making, allowing her to focus on her broader mission: incorporating challah—which is Eastern European in origin, and plays a ceremonial role in Ashkenazi Jewish culture—into the mainstream. Challah Dolly loaves are now available at New York City specialty markets, including Murray’s Cheese, in the West Village, and Greene Grape Provisions, in Fort Greene, and by mail order nationwide. When I received the “Trifecta” variety pack, I was surprised by the slimness of the package, which contained plain, everything, and honey-cinnamon loaves, each about the size of a Nerf football. If you’re used to a heftier challah, as a centerpiece of a Shabbos or holiday dinner, you might think of a Challah Dolly loaf as more like a banana bread, to be whittled down in the course of several days—Meckler’s recipe, an heirloom passed down from a friend, insures an extra-moist crumb—although it’s equally suited to sweet and savory applications.

Meckler’s are not the only challahs I’ve recently had delivered. Last year, Erez Blanks, an Israeli-American living in Brooklyn, started Parchment, offering weekend pickup and drop-offs of bread boxes, featuring either Yemeni-style kubanah—a round of laminated pull-apart rolls—or challah, along with salatim (salads, sides, and dips). The kubanah is flecked with scallions and nigella seeds; the challah is buttermilk-and-honey sourdough. Blanks, who has cooked at Le Coucou and Lamalo, a Middle Eastern restaurant in NoMad, doesn’t shy from starter.

Challah Dolly loaves, available for nationwide shipping, come in three flavors: plain, everything, and honey-cinnamon.

The boxes are inspired by the “potluck of different cultures,” as Blanks puts it, that inform the cuisine in Israel, and especially by dishes that bring him comfort. When he served in the Israeli Army, a friend’s Yemeni mother would bring them kubanah. Blanks and his wife, an Israeli of Moroccan origin, are not particularly observant Jews, but both grew up eating cholent, a stew—usually some mix of legumes, potatoes, barley, and lamb or beef chuck—that religious Jews start cooking on Fridays before sundown and leave simmering until Saturday lunch. One of Blanks’s salatim, a cup of baked pinto beans, potato, and wedges of hard-boiled egg, pays homage to the dish.

“There’s something very soothing about challah,” Blanks told me. “It’s so soft. It’s a rich, brioche-type dough, but it’s also almost like Wonder Bread.” Like Meckler, he sees its potential. A Parchment box, he said, “could morph into anything from a snack”—a slice of challah swiped in Blanks’s ethereally silky hummus, or in his North African-inspired matbucha, a mash of slow-cooked peppers, tomatoes, cauliflower, and zucchini—“to a base for a Friday-night meal, just add your protein.” Or add his: a stellar whole chicken comes on and off the menu, smoked in harissa and dripping in juices that beg for squishy bread. (Challah Dolly challahs $12 per loaf; Parchment boxes from $39.) ♦

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